Thanks to an awkward moment in a Detroit steakhouse, Jimmy Spencer and Kurt Busch now are friends.
The two spent three years hating and hitting each other. Included in their dust ups was Busch running onto the track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2002 and grabbing his buttocks as Spencer drove by and Spencer being suspended for a race in 2003 after punching Busch in the nose.
But those hard feelings have been replaced by mutual respect. Neither backed down; they simply decided to move on.
What prompted the peace accord was a dinner in 2005. Greg Biffle invited Busch to dinner; a reporter asked Spencer. When everyone sat down, the tension was overwhelming.
“I don’t think either of us expected it,” Spencer said. “We made small talk at first, but by the end of dinner we were all friends. Other people walked by the table and stared at us. A lot of them did a double-take. They couldn’t believe we could be in the same room, much less having dinner with each other.
“It took a lot of guts to invite both of us to dinner, but now Kurt and I don’t have any problems at all.”
Drivers have to work in the same garage area. They make appearances together. And sometimes they have to share a ride in the back of a car or truck during pre-race parade laps. For drivers who are angry at each other, it doesn’t offer a lot of room for escape.
Very few arguments linger for months, much less years. Busch and Spencer set the gold standard for drivers who genuinely disliked each other. Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick have been battling for years, and Harvick openly admits to not liking Kurt’s younger brother.
He’s also not interested in resolving his issues, even if he’s paired with Kyle Busch during the ride-around before the race.
“If it’s somebody you don’t like, you don’t talk,” Harvick said. “That’s pretty much the gist of it.”
Most drivers know if they race long enough, they’re eventually going to have a problem. Some send text messages early in the week to work things out. Others make phone calls. Some, however, let the differences simmer.
“You smile if you’re doing a parade lap with them, but in the back of your mind, you just know one of these days I’m going to get that guy back,” Joe Nemechek said. “We may be smiling now, but it ain’t going to come back right.”
When David Ragan was called a “dart without feathers” by Tony Stewart at Martinsville, Va., in 2006, he paid to ride with Stewart during the parade lap a week later so he could work out his issues.
Ragan was the highest bidder among fans trying to buy rides with drivers who were sponsored by Coca-Cola. He figured that was his best chance to talk with Stewart.
“It was the first time I ever met Tony,” Ragan said. “I was nervous.”
Two years ago Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin rode together during the pre-race ceremonies at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. While they didn’t have problems, they were fighting for the championship.
“Those trips are just tough,” Johnson said. “Man, that’s a long five minutes around the race track. I’m a friendly guy by nature, so I’m sitting there trying to have my competitive mindset and it’s not very comfortable, to say the least.
“In situations like that and I think that particular year with Denny, we talked about the off-season and what was going to go on. It wasn’t much of a conversation. But just vaguely, both staring in a different direction. It’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m going here and I’m going there. Well yeah, have fun. Good luck; good luck, too.’ Stuff like that.”
The only thing worse is when the drivers don’t talk at all.
“Sometimes you talk about the race track and the groove and what it looks like, what you think about the weather, how’s your car, what do you think the track is going to do today? Sometimes they’ll be like, ‘I don't really know.’ You know they know, but they won’t tell you,” Martin Truex said. “It’s usually awkward conversation to be honest. It’s like awkward silence. It’s not very comfortable, that’s for sure.”